I first heard the ‘Observer Effect’ term from author Raksha Bharadia, during a writers’ workshop I attended years ago (2009, I think it was) when she was talking about all the obstacles we put up to stop ourselves from succeeding as writers.
It was a pure ‘a-ha!’ moment, she’d named and identified something that I had always had in the back of my mind. I’d always thought I was the only one who worried about it, though, so it felt good to be told that it was an actual Thing, with the capital letter that it warrants.
The OE isn’t exclusive to writers, though – it’s one that is known to all Indians as the ‘Chaar Log’ Effect.
So what is this ‘Observer Effect’?
The Observer Effect or Chaar Log effect is, in essence – what will everybody else think? What will society think if you become a hair stylist instead of an engineer; like the neighbour’s son – what will they say if you marry a Muslim instead of a Hindu – what will they say when they find out you’re gay – that you’ve failed your school exams because you’re dyslexic – or even that you wear a pink T-shirt when you’re a man.
In writing, the Observer Effect manifests itself when we write a story with sex, or violence, or bad language – anything ‘adult’, in other words – and then wonder what our parents/friends/lovers/bosses would think if they read it.
Obviously, this accounts for many writers choosing pseudonyms – me, as well. I wrote/write most of my fanfiction under a pseudonym, because while I like the freedom of writing whatever I’m in the mood for, without worrying about creating characters or world building – I felt uncomfortable knowing that anyone who did a simple Google search of me – like impressionable young cousins, parents, and older relatives – would find (sometimes explicit) love stories and violence in the stories under my own name.
Writing under a pen name erases all those fears. I know some people who have fandom specific pen names, and while I never did that – I could never remember so many different passwords and usernames! – I did end up having two versions of the same name (Isha and Isha_libran) across different sites and forums.
Now that I’ve been talking about my upcoming book on this site, and, more importantly, on social media, a lot of my family is curious about my writing. They all want to read the short story that won me my writing contract, and they’re all asking to read the first draft of my book when it’s done. And this is a Problem.
Because – although I don’t worry so much about what they would think about me when they read my work – (my god, you write such strange stories?! – why don’t you write nice, happy, love stories, instead of all these cruel and dark ones? – how come you write about ghosts and paranormal things when you don’t believe in anything?) – I am still a little leery of hearing their opinions of my writing. This is mostly because they’re not the audience I’m writing for.
When I say ‘audience’, I don’t mean that I tailor my writing specifically to cater to someone’s taste, which, to me, would be like trying to follow a formula to become the author of a bestseller. Nowadays, it seems to be: ‘young Indian + MBA ± engineering education + stupid, controversial Hinglish title (along the lines of ‘Love You Hamesha, Darling’ or ‘She Tied Me a Rakhi! But I Loved Her!’) + 150-200 page narrative rife with spelling mistakes and conversational English = instant bestseller’!
No, when I speak of audience, I mean the people who like to read the kinds of books I write. People who like creepy, dark stories about paranormal stuff, people who don’t mind reading stories without happy endings, people who know life isn’t a beautiful, Yash Chopra-Karan Johar-ish glossy fiction.
People most definitely not like the majority of my family.
And while it’s one thing to be judged for the content of your work – one can always dismiss negative comments about violence or adult themes as well meaning but irrelevant – it’s another thing entirely to have to hear comments from people you know will not like your writing. It would be like taking a fan of classical, carnatic South Indian music to a YoYo Honey Singh concert, and then asking them to critique his music. Does. Not. Compute.
So when friends or relatives ask me to send them a link to my stories, I first check and see if they’re the kind who’ve never read a book in their lives, or hate paranormal/fantasy/sci fi or even slightly unrealistic stories – they usually call these stories ‘fiction’, in a disparaging tone, which makes absolutely zero sense to me, but more on that later.
If they are, I end up making excuses not to share my work with them. Because I don’t want to hear them criticise my writing when I know they won’t even understand it. Even if I tell myself I’m writing, essentially, for myself (and perhaps, on a larger scale, for others like me) and not for them, negative words are worse than sticks and stones; they hurt, dammit.
Writing is such a visceral thing, I sometimes feel like I’m laying my whole mind and heart bare for others to read and understand.
It’s difficult enough, accepting that fact, and still pushing the ‘publish’ button or handing over your work to an editor, without worrying about what can be deduced about your psychology and your character from your plots and character names and word choices. I, for one, could not really take having to explain each story I write to people from my personal life who are not used to reading fiction, or people who don’t like the genre I write.
There should be a name for this phenomenon, too. Maybe I’ll call it the ‘My Personal Life is Separate From My Writing (Please Don’t Ask Me to Explain My Stories at Dinner)’ Effect.
If, years later, you ever read a medical or psychology paper mentioning this, remember: you heard it here first.
[music| Bad Things: Meiko]